Episode 3: Corporate Culture – The backbone of our success
In the previous editions of my blog series reflecting on my 20 years at Quanser, I covered what it was like in the early days and our technological evolution. I would now like to switch gears and reflect on the corporate culture at Quanser.
I’ve always believed in the importance of developing a clear corporate strategy; however, I am even more in favour of ensuring the company culture is in good shape. Why? Peter Drucker, a well-known business management guru, famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This means that no matter how good the strategy is on paper, the quality of the company culture will determine whether it succeeds or not. That is a bold statement, but after three decades as a business leader and almost 40 years since I graduated with my engineering degree, I could not agree more.
In this blog, I hope to share some of my journey and experiences related to this notion, along with a few tips to hopefully inspire and encourage current and future leaders to do the right things and give readers a sneak peek into the Quanser magic.
Quanser BBQ (June 2022)
When I graduated in 1985, I started my career as an R&D engineer for an aerospace company that made components for the industry. I had to wear a suit and tie, and according to many of the senior managers in the company, my hair was too long and messy. No matter how hard I worked or how successful my developments were, I was constantly told to do my top button-up and get my hair cut. I was also discouraged from sharing an opinion or an idea that differed from conventional wisdom. It was a struggle for me and my peers of young engineers trying to work in a climate that opposed innovation and creativity. I counted the minutes each day until 5 pm. The division was sold not long after I left. I believe because it was underperforming, go figure.
Fast forward to 1996, when I took over as President of the Canadian Division of a multinational company in the packaging industry. When I walked in, the atmosphere was pretty toxic. The previous President had such an authoritarian approach that everyone scattered in all directions when he stepped onto the shop floor to avoid meeting him. Not surprisingly, the company was bleeding money. At the tender age of 34, and this being my first role managing a company, I had an uphill struggle on my hands. Forget about strategy. How was I going to turn this around? The solution presented itself to me almost immediately. We had a significant project that needed to get up and running quickly, and there was a lot of pressure from the owners. The technicians and engineers had been working night and day for weeks. They had weeks to go and were exhausted, frustrated, and angry. I decided to spend a weekend working side by side with them on the floor. The first evening, I bought pizza and beer for the whole team, and the next night took them to a local restaurant, and we got to know each other better. From that weekend on, I actively worked on developing relationships across all departments, and the working environment improved tremendously over time.
Recent Engineering graduate, Paul Gilbert (1985)
When I joined Quanser 20 years ago, I was determined to develop a workplace environment and corporate culture that I could be proud of. We had fewer than 10 people then, and I have been fortunate to set the tone for every one hired, onboarded, and developed since. We have cultivated a very special spirit that I know would be hard to replicate. It is a key factor in attracting new hires and a major benefit for existing employees.
We have grown tremendously since then, and I am really proud to reflect on our incredible employee stats. Almost 50% of our current team have been with Quanser for over 10 years, and 25% of all employees over 15 years. As a high-tech company, those retention numbers are pretty rare.
We make a conscious effort to maintain and enhance our work experience at Quanser. I have outlined eight principles that I believe are most important in building a solid corporate culture.
1. Take time during the hiring process
Our goal is to ensure that each new employee is the right fit for the Quanser culture and possesses the skills necessary to perform successfully in their role. We ask the top candidates to meet as many team members as possible so they can get to know us better, and more of us can get to know each candidate. This approach does take considerably more time but inevitably helps us make the most informed decisions when selecting the best talent for Quanser. There are always business pressures to fill an open position quickly. Still, my experience tells me that rushing through the process and hiring the wrong person can have long-lasting and profoundly damaging effects.
2. Lead with honesty, empathy, and integrity
I think it essential that leaders at Quanser must create an environment where it’s safe to share any ideas and act on those that are good. When employees are heard, they feel more connected to the business. When it comes to leading with honesty and integrity, my Dad always told me, “The easiest lie to remember is the truth.” In my experience, you will get the same behaviour from your employees as the behaviour that you model.
3. Flexibility and family first
Accidents, illnesses and family obligations never arrive at convenient moments in our lives. Children’s sporting events and recitals pop up randomly, and the person delivering the new washing machine inevitably arrives at the end of the 3-hour window promised. It is a very human and sensible business approach that can help reduce stress when you make it clear that these situations are not a problem. I think companies with rigid policies are missing the point; people do not work very effectively if they are worried about dealing with unplanned situations in their personal life.
4. Embrace a good sense of humour
While this is highly underrated in most workplaces, nothing reduces tension and stress more than a good laugh. I absolutely love walking around the company and hearing rooms burst into laughter or sitting in a meeting with a difficult challenge that must be solved, and someone manages to make just the right light-hearted comment to lift the mood.
5. Support project ownership
Happiness is completing a project you are personally responsible for. I have been reminded of this by many at Quanser, who are all very self-motivated and driven to succeed. We encourage small projects to be given to early-stage employees, and over time responsibilities increase with more complex and challenging assignments. I believe that the talent we have at Quanser thrives on personal challenges and succeeding by taking a project from conception to completion. This approach is an incredibly powerful mechanism for building confidence and developing and motivating your team.
6. Approachable leadership
There is a perception that open-door policies are hard to maintain, I could not disagree more, but it doesn’t mean you have to be open and available 24/7. Management needs to cultivate an environment where employees can talk with any leadership level when the need arises. They should feel comfortable asking questions and sharing feedback with their manager, or for that matter, any manager in the organization. Access to alternative perspectives and a variety of opinions are incredibly helpful in shaping our worldview.
7. Celebrate innovation
Creativity and open-ended brainstorming are fun concepts we hear about all the time. However, they can get messy and confusing. Sometimes through the process of innovating, we make mistakes, things get broken, or we run into dead ends. I guess this is where the sense of humour and positive personality help. My observation at Quanser is that in most cases, we recognize the problem, dust ourselves off, and figure out a way to resolve it together as a team. We have achieved some of our most significant business successes by creating an environment that embraces the challenges and benefits of continually innovating.
8. Don’t forget to have fun
Our dedicated team works very hard each day to help our business achieve its goals. So, we make it a priority to celebrate and spend time together as often as we can. Whether it is one of our monthly birthday celebrations, summer BBQs or offsite team-building events, it is important to socialize, bond, relieve stress and celebrate together. It fosters a sense of family and community as strong personal and professional relationships are built.
Quanser Corporate Kick-off (January 2020)
It takes time, effort, and a commitment from everyone on the management team to play their part in this process. The amazing thing is that it costs virtually nothing to implement some of these practices. And many tangible outcomes result from these activities, including higher employee retention, improved product quality, and stronger problem resolution. Employees feel more fulfilled in their careers and more engaged and connected to the business.
So, to my Quanser family, I am humbled to work with such a bright, talented and diverse group of people. Thank you for your unwavering commitment. You inspire me every day and give me confidence that we will continue to thrive as we provide ongoing support to the academic community and make a difference for future generations of engineers worldwide. Cheers to you!